You’ve probably heard a lot about the #NoCode movement but may not know what it means, exactly. Today, we have the great pleasure of talking with someone who is knee-deep in the #NoCode movement.
Helen Ryles has launched 42 projects over 10+ years and on this episode, she shares with us why she builds so many products, her process for choosing what to work on, and how she determines a good time to sell a #NoCode product.
The topics we cover with Helen Ryles
- 6:11 Ryles on why she chose to launch so many products
- 9:04 The snowball effect for learning new skills
- 14:10 Advice for reluctant marketers
- 16:05 Keeping side-projects small on purpose
- 18:27 Deciding when to sell a business
- 21:41 A primer on the #NoCode movement
Links from the show
- Helen Ryles | Twitter
- Side Project Review – 2020 – @HelenRyles | Google Sheets
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If you have questions about starting or scaling a software business that you’d like for us to cover, please submit your question for an upcoming episode. We’d love to hear from you!
Before we get into that, I wanted to tell you about something we’ve launched with MicroConf On Air. What it is, is we’re going back through the best MicroConf talks of all time, and we’re taking the audio tracks from those talks. We are releasing one every Tuesday morning on the MicroConf On Air Podcast. So, microconfpodcast.com, or you can go to any podcatcher and search for MicroConf On Air. Every Tuesday morning there will be a new MicroConf talk and every Thursday morning there will be an audio release of our Wednesday MicroConf On Air live stream.
We have three talks that have already been released. You can go check them out. These are three of the top five rated MicroConf talks of all time. The first one is from Joanna Wiebe, Proven Ways to Widen Your Funnel Using Just Your Calls to Action. The other one is Designing the Ideal Bootstrap Business from Jason Cohen. The third is Playing the Long Game: Making Entrepreneurship a Sustainable Life by my wife, Dr. Sherry Walling.
Coming up with our talks from Patio11, a talk from me 11 years to overnight success, where I talk about the Drip exit and what that will look like. We’re going to go on. We’re going to dig into the best talks of MicroConf. We have close to 200 of them. We have a lot of content to release that you can listen to the audio. You don’t have to sit and watch a video because I struggled to watch videos even at 1.7x speed. This is a way where you can stream it or you’re doing the dishes just like any other podcasts and we’ll drip them out over time, so it doesn’t feel like a bunch of homework. It feels like a jolt of creativity or inspiration at that moment when you need it. For that check out the MicroConf On Air Podcast.
In addition, I have mentioned in the past that Basecamp is a headline partner of MicroConf. As part of that, here is the 60-second message from Basecamp. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t plan to sell ads on Startups For the Rest of Us or to have ads running every week or anything like that. At this point, it’s pretty infrequent, but with that, let’s listen to the 60-second spot from Basecamp:
We asked founders and entrepreneurs why they switched to Basecamp when their company started to grow. Christina had just hired some more people. When it came to internal communication, everything was all over the place. There was more work and more people than before, and no way to keep track of it all. Sometimes information was in an email, sometimes in the chat room. They spent too much time on conference calls to figure out what was going on.
Then one day, they almost missed a deadline for an important customer because the information was in the wrong place. She knew they needed to get organized, but all the software she looked at seemed complicated, and it would take too long to train everybody. Then she found Basecamp. Basecamp puts all of your internal communication in one place, so nothing slips through the cracks.
Unlike other tools, Basecamp has an incredibly simple structure organized around your teams and projects. Your team will immediately understand and start using it when they see the two-minute introduction video on our site. Go to basecamp.com to learn more, and start a free trial.
Rob: Thanks to Basecamp for supporting independent builders. With that, let’s dive into my conversation with Helen Ryles. We dig into the 42 side projects she’s launched over the past decade as well as dig into and hear her experience with the No-Code Movement. Hope you enjoy the show.
Helen, thank you so much for joining me on the show today.
Helen: Hi Rob, it’s great to be here.
Rob: It’s lovely to be speaking with you. I’ve been watching some of the stuff you’re doing on Twitter talking about all these side projects you’ve launched. I think at last count, are you over 40 now?
Helen: Yeah, right about 42 something like that.
Rob: Excellent. Are they all No-Code? Did you write code for any of them?
Helen: All custom-coded apps. I have done some coding for some that I’ve hired developers for as well. I’d say the large majority are probably No-Code related or using existing tools to build something new. I think there’s quite a mix in there. I think each one is quite different and uses a different toolset.
Rob: What languages do you code in by choice when you’re given the chance?
Helen: My development experience is quite limited in terms of my day job doesn’t really require any coding. I could have done a little bit of Python, a little bit of Ruby on Rails, enough to spaghetti code my way into something I want to make. Often, even just starting with a template or starting with something pre-existing is a lot easier to work from. Even just things like writing simple scripts to automate batch files and things like that. There are different ways you can work things on the back-end, even if it’s not necessarily something you’re building from scratch. There are lots of ways you can use even a base level of coding skills to produce a product.
Rob: I learned to code when I was eight, then I was a professional developer in the day job, and then on my own products, for about 13 years. At a certain point, we just decided it was much better for the businesses if I didn’t put my hacky commando code into this source code repo anymore.
I like to joke that my co-founder Derrick revoked my right privileges to GitHub. That didn’t actually happen. We were just like, hey, my time is better spent, but also, I just don’t have the time to keep the chops up, so that I’m any good at anything anymore. I still hack. I’ll hack PHP on the weekend, just for kicks or to hit an API. I started teaching myself Python maybe a year and a half ago. I went and started TinySeed. I got distracted but I agree. I still will hack together little scripts to do this with an image or just utilities and stuff.
Batch scripts and just enough knowledge to do what I think is so important. Leading into your experience, I’m fascinated. The first question is 42 of these small apps that you’ve launched is a very atypical approach to doing things. I’ve been trying to convince people for years to do the stair-step approach of, hey, build one thing small. Get a little bit of revenue. Build a few more. You pile those on, and then eventually, buyers are on time, and then you can get and do “the big home run,” whatever that is for people, maybe it’s a SaaS app or something like that.
I still find so many people are like, nope, I’m going to go from now this SaaS app as my first app in this big competitive space because that’s what I see everybody else doing. But you are literally taking the opposite approach to that. I’m wondering what has motivated you to take the approach?
Helen: I think for me, I build side projects because I want to see my ideas exist not necessarily because I want to run them long-term as particular businesses. There are definitely things I would consider doing that with. I think for a lot of people, perhaps earning more money or freeing up time is a big motivator. For me, it’s a hobby, like somebody who is interested in woodworking doesn’t necessarily just stop making one day. Their idea is to keep practicing and keep building new things. I think partially, the fastest way to stop making and testing new ideas is to have your time taken up by a full-time company. For me, the more things that could enable me to build new things are most interesting to me.
Rob: I like the parallel you made there to woodworking. Folks listening to this probably know that my goal with software products was to quit the day job. I didn’t have to consult and I wanted to own my own time so I could work on whenever I wanted because I always struggled to enjoy what I was doing at the day job.
I would work for a year and then get bored at any place, so I was unemployable as the way I think about it. It doesn’t sound that’s the case for you. It sounds like the motivation is much more about building interesting things that interest you, like woodworking. I collect comic books like old Silver Age comic books. I do that. I also make money doing that, but not that much compared to my time. My time would be so much better spent doing something else, but I just love it. I love the experience of it. It sounds like that’s why you’re building these apps.
Helen: Definitely. My end goal is to have more time making those things. I think the skills that you learned from one definitely snowball into the next one, and it gets easier to spot ideas, trends, patterns, and pick up on ideas and collect evidence for a project that you think has a better chance of succeeding. It’s quite nice to take one product that is quite different from the next but still try and have some experience and get better. The more things you create, it’s trying to increase your chances overlooked by rolling the dice as many times as you can.
Rob: I’ve heard you talk about this concept of building the tool belt. Part of stair-stepping is that when you start out, you either have no skills or typically one skill. If you’re a developer you know how to write code. If you’re a copywriter you know how to write copy. If you’re a salesperson you know how to be salesy or whatever.
Building this tool belt, I imagine the batarang or a construction worker, it’s like, oh, I’m going to learn to do AdWords on this one. I’m going to learn to do SEO. I’m going to learn to do pay per click ads. I’m going to learn to do word-of-mouth marketing. I’m going to learn to use this new No-Code tool, and you’ve talked about that as well. I think you’ve referred to it as your snowball effect. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Helen: Definitely. I think going back to your coining the phrase about the stair-step approach. I remember reading that article probably back in 2015 and realizing that it’s actually okay to do that. Originally, I was always quite unsure if that’s an okay thing to do, and maybe I was feeling almost bad for constantly creating things. I should maybe become a better developer and focus on one thing.
I think over time realized that my best skills are acquiring and trying to be perhaps more of a generalist in some ways. I think I look at each project as even if it’s not going to become profitable. What can I learn from this? Is there a new skill, a new tool? For example a new app I’ve built recently. I tested out Glide Apps, which is a progressive web app and also Print on Demand. So, combine two new things I’ve never done before into an app to see if that’s something that works, if it’s something that interests me. Now, that’s something I’ve tried and tested, and I can move forward with that, perhaps in a bigger and better project in the future.
Rob: That’s a really intriguing way of thinking about it. That’s for TinyHello I assume, tinyhello.com?
Helen: TinyHello is more of a craft-based business that’s been around quite a while. That started more on these gig types of platforms where people can pay for different kinds of products and services. That became more of a streamlined product through the use of No-Code tools where you can automate certain processes in order to make a craft business simpler to run.
The most recent one was basically a language app for people who are traveling, who are either vegetarian or vegan, and they want to explain in a language that they don’t necessarily speak, and what their dietary requirements are. This was an app that I built, and then there’s also some T-shirts and merchandise as part of the app as well, using a Print on Demand platform. That’s two quite separate and different business models and you see. It was something that I could combine together two different things and find a way to launch a new product using those two together.
Rob: That makes sense. I just want to give listeners an idea of some of the things you’ve launched. TinyHello I just mentioned, which sends your love anywhere in the world. Turn your words into a handwritten tiny letter that they will remember forever. There’s namesace.com and when I first saw it, I thought it was NameSace like Versace. When I got that I was like, oh, no, it’s NamesAce. Find the perfect domain and find dot-coms for side projects. I think this is actually super cool to leverage that skill that you’ve obviously developed because you have some pretty good domain names.
This other one is called NoCodeo, nocodeo.com. Sell your No-Code apps, templates, and domains. Once again, you’ve built so many of them yourself and I know that you’ve sold about a fifth of the apps that you’ve built. I’m guessing you could almost trace your trajectory based on which of these things you built because building NoCodeo when you first started (maybe wouldn’t have made as much sense), but now that you have a whole cache of apps to sell, it seems to fall in line.
Helen: Definitely. I think as well as being part of different communities gives you these different ideas. You’ll see each one is probably for a completely different audience. I think a lot of people would probably think that’s a terrible idea, but for me, I’m trying to find out which audiences are interested in things, which audiences are interested in free or paid products. I think everything’s just a learning experience, whether you pick a different audience every time and finally realize that it’s actually okay to do that.
If you’re getting something out of that, whether that’s selling the project to the end of it or turning it into a profitable business, I think there are lots that can be gained from just letting ideas almost run wild in your spare time and just see what comes of it.
Rob: How many out of these 42 do you still own approximately or a percentage, just some idea?
Helen: Probably less than 10.
Rob: Can you give us an idea of what type of revenue combined do they bring in for you?
Helen: They vary. Let’s say TinyHello can bring in some months are quite low and some months are a couple of 100. Depends on how much I promote something. What I tend to do is try and find opportunities to market these that feel more natural. I think people who perhaps shy away from sales. If you are a reluctant marketer, then what you need instead is time to spot these opportunities where it feels less salesy, to casually mention a product that you’ve had around for a while. I think at one point, the card deck which I’ve now sold was at its highest point. I think it was about 100. That was on a physical product. Some months it was down to perhaps a couple of $100. It’s quite a wide range. By all means, there’s a lot of the time that these make nothing, and then sometimes something comes along […], something is launched on Product Hunt, or it gets picked up on Twitter. There’s a flurry of sales and it can easily go back down to nothing if you aren’t marketing full-time.
Just to point out, I don’t necessarily spend anything on advertising. I try to do this as organically as possible. I’ve realized that that’s my style. I guess that that’s okay. I would prefer to do it that way than trying to force myself to talk about the same product every day, all day. I just try to drop products into natural conversations into communities that I think would bring value to people and just hope that the product itself is self-evident what the value is. I’m there to explain any additional features or help out as needed. It’s a very laid-back approach to sales.
Rob: It’s much, much less growth hacky and more organic. It sounds like that is your preference. Especially given that they are side projects, and you don’t have to do anything that you don’t feel comfortable with. That seems a perfectly reasonable approach.
Helen: One thing to remember is that if you are working a full-time job, if you have multiple side projects, sometimes a project becoming too successful too quickly puts you in a dilemma where you have to think, well, what needs to give in order to let this fulfill its potential. In some respects, keeping things quite low-key is a way to protect your own time. If I ever wanted to pick one particular idea and run with it full-time, then I would probably have to sacrifice and not market some of the other things.
I like having these assets that exist and occasionally automatically make sales, whether that’s an ebook in the background or physical products and things like that. I like having this collection of things that make surprising sales every now and again, and it’s not too time-consuming, it’s not too overwhelming, and it’s manageable for me to continue on and build new things as well.
Rob: It’s a hobby. It makes sense. It’s not bringing in a full-time salary. It’s not like you could quit the job.
Helen: I’ve definitely had products half than that. I’ve had PodWords. I think its highest had around 5 or 6 recurring clients with about a couple of $1000 a month MRR. I’ve definitely had other physical products, which you’ve pulled in similar amounts and certain points. There have been times when I have not been working a day job and have been running that is 50% of the time alongside contracts, consulting, and things.
There’s definitely potential and I would definitely be interested to have a product, do that at some point in the future. In the meantime, I need to be careful and mindful of spreading myself too thin across lots of different things and not being able to do what it is that I enjoy which is actually making and trying new things, and helping other people to learn how they can do the same.
Rob: That’s the freedom. I often talk about freedom, purpose, and relationships as guiding principles. You’re talking a lot about the freedom and the purpose part there, the freedom to do what you want to have an app that produces half your income and then to consult, to work a day job, and have stuff on the side. The purpose is (that’s where I think hobbies bring a lot of that) you get a lot of happiness and enjoyment out of learning new things. That can often lead to feeling that sense of purpose of like, yeah, my purpose right now is to create and launch these small apps and do a bunch of learning. When does it hit the point where you decide you want to sell it? How do you make that decision?
Helen: I think when I’ve absorbed as much out of it as I had originally intended. Whether I’ve learned a tool to the point where I’ve achieved what I originally set out to do, or whether I think a product is at a good point for somebody to take it over and be successful with it. I think a lot of people maybe leave a product until it’s fizzling out and I would rather sell something while it has the potential to become a bigger thing. I tend to sell my projects with a list of marketing ideas and a list of ways of going forward with it.
I like to make sure that there’s still a lot of untapped potential in a product, and it’s a position that somebody could take this on easily. Is it able to be packaged up in a way that somebody could hit the ground running and make the most out of what I have built already?
Rob: Does it ever happen you just get bored with something and you want to pass it on to the next person?
Helen: It’s not necessarily about getting bored. I think it’s more a case of it serving the purpose of what I originally set out to do. I come up with a hypothetical either a hunch or a guess and think, well, if I set something up in this way, I think this would work. This business model should be interesting to people, this pricing model. When I’ve proved that out, I think it doesn’t necessarily have to be me that continues to run it. I think it’s quite nice to know that there are people out there that perhaps haven’t got time to build things that are interested in picking something up that’s been proven that the process is streamlined. They can pick up something that they wouldn’t necessarily have time to create themselves. It’s a win-win to build these things and sell them on in some ways.
Rob: You actually published a tweet, “My 2020 side-project spreadsheet. 10+ years, 40+ projects. Countless lessons learned!” You link to a Google spreadsheet in there. We will link that up in the show notes if folks want to check out. There are literally 43 in there. Several are dormant and several are retired, but you can see what’s live and click through, and several are sold. That’s pretty cool. It seems you’ve been having a lot of fun with it.
Helen: It’s been good to share that. It’s only been recently that I’ve actually started sharing what it is I’ve been building over the past 10 years or so. The feedback I’ve had has been really encouraging and really helpful. Hopefully, I can dig deep into some of the stories from each individual project and put some blog posts together. The people might find it interesting if they want to start similar businesses themselves in the future.
Rob: My assistant producer particular some notes for me. It sounds like when you go to sell these you’ve sold them on sideprojectors.com, indiemaker.co, OnekProject, and for No-Code stuff, No-Code exchange, and NoCodeo which is your own site marketplace-type thing. Do other people post on NoCodeo or is it all your stuff?
Helen: Yeah. I didn’t even install it until recently, a little bit earlier this year. We just started to have the first handful of projects to be posted up there. They’re going to go to be put live in the next few weeks. It’ll start being a busier marketplace quite soon.
Rob: I’d like to switch up the topic here to almost educate myself a little bit, and perhaps folks in the audience. I have heard of No-Code and I typically think of Zapier, maybe Notion, Airtable. There are the beta Squarespace and No-Code. These are the tools that I have been exposed to, but I know there’s this whole iceberg under the water that I’ve never even heard of. Just when I was looking through my assistant producer’s notes that he put down for you, you mentioned a bunch of tools you use, like Boundless, which is boundlesslabs.com is one.
I clicked through and I started looking through it. I’m like, okay, so it’s a site builder, No-Code required. Cool. How is (just Boundless in particular) that different than using Squarespace to build a site?
Helen: Boundless is more focused on the app calculators in terms of the functionality of Excel, or even going back into Access and things like that. The functionality of database-driven app calculators and things like that, that you can build with that logic in that workflow in something that is as simple to use as a landing page builder like Squarespace or Carrd and things like that.
It’s got that additional layer of function and logic behind it to put those formulas in and create things that are interactive, as opposed to a static site that displays text, images, and things like that. It’s a really useful tool. It’s got quite a lot of powerful features in there that can really build some interesting things.
Rob: That’s super helpful. Thanks. There was obviously a super noob question. As you started singing, I was like, oh, so it’s totally different, but I really couldn’t tell because I have so little exposure to the new tools here. I’m curious as someone who is obviously steeped in No-Code. How do you describe it to someone if they’ve never heard that term?
Helen: I guess there are a couple of different sides to No-Code. First of all the tools which people are probably familiar with and have used over the last 10 years or so. Things like Zapier, Webflow, and landing page builders like Cardd. These tools that enable people to build quite complex systems and also link them together within integrations that don’t necessarily require any custom code, the speed of which you can prototype something is incredible.
You can go from nothing to an app on 100 people’s phones in a couple of hours. I think just that speed of prototyping is a big seller of the No-Code tools, but then there’s also the community side as well. A huge thing that I found most encouraging is that there’s a huge community of people who are helping each other as well. Let’s say 10 years ago, I was building sites in different No-Code tools, which they are considered to be now.
There weren’t necessarily people who could help me integrate one thing with another, with another, and that just necessarily wasn’t the thing. Developers have always been able to find each other through the frameworks that they use. Just this name of No-Code enables people to find other people like themselves, other people who build things like I do, which it’s really been an interesting experience to talk to other people and learn from them and share my things with them. I think if it hadn’t been for the No-Code community, I wouldn’t have shared the projects that I’ve made.
Rob: Very cool. I went and looked. It looks like you have used Glide Apps (glideapps.com) and their h1 is creating an app from a Google Sheet in five minutes for free, and this is a mobile app. I’m looking at the interface, and it’s blowing my mind. It’s like a landing page builder where if you need truly custom design and truly everything, then don’t use this. Then you need to write code, but it feels pretty powerful to me based on just looking at that and having an animated GIF on the homepage.
Helen: Definitely. You can take a Google Sheet full of data and layouts, and turn that into a progressive web app. That feels like a native app on your phone in literally minutes. I think the learning curve is so intuitive that it opens people up to building new things and even helps people to get into coding. There are lots of people who start out with No-Code and it makes it more approachable. It makes that mindset and that thinking of the logical process of integrating tools together. It exposes you to things you haven’t experienced before and is a great introduction to becoming a developer much more approachable.
Rob: You have another No-Code tool that maybe is a favorite one that you think other folks haven’t heard about?
Helen: I think the one I use the most this Carrd.
Rob: And Carrd is at carrd.co. It says it’s simple, free, fully responsive one-page sites for pretty much anything. It is a landing page builder. Does it have more functionality or flexibility than other tools?
Helen: Yeah. It’s integrated with all the tools like Stripe and Gumroad so you can build a subscription business. I have a landing page. I built a transcription business using Carrd integrated with the Stripe to take recurring payments. Insert tables and videos. You can go from 0–1 really quickly and there are lots of useful templates out there that help people to build something that looks really well-designed.
Rob: That’s what I was going to ask because I look at TinyHello, I look at NamesAce, and I’m struck by how attractive they are. Are these custom designs or did you pull those from Carrd templates?
Helen: NamesAce is a Carrd site. I think mostly that was based on a very basic theme that I’ve customized myself with the layout. TinyHello is just a templated HTML, CSS template really, with some custom design, characters, and things in there. I think you can do a lot of combining reusable design elements into existing templates. The elements of design can make something look really highly polished when it can be quite simple underneath it all.
Rob: I was struck by that. I’ll admit at my peak, I think I owned 12 revenue-generating products, but one of them was a collection of like 6 AdSense websites back when that was a thing. I had an ecommerce website for beach towels. I had a couple of different ebooks in different niches, and then I had a bunch of software. Everything else was little software products, some downloads, some add-ons, all that stuff.
My sites did not look as good as yours. They didn’t need to. They get the job done, but I was struck by it. Typically, when I see people having a portfolio like this, you have some things that are a little long in the tooth or they’re just not that well-designed or optimized for conversion rather than aesthetics. Your stuff looks really nice.
As we move towards wrapping up. I’m curious. You’ve done all this in No-Code. Have you ever thought of building one of these No-Code tools, like a landing page builder? Have you ever had a No-Code, maybe you thought it wasn’t solved, so I’m going to build it myself?
Helen: There’s definitely lots of room for improvement in the No-Code space. There are lots of interesting things that people are waiting to be launched. Things like browser extensions and things that push the boundaries of things that can be templated. For me, I don’t think I have the skillset quite yet to build something that’s a completely fully fleshed No-Code product.
I think there are definitely ideas out there that I would be interested in. I think I would probably build a small single feature thing. There’s one thing I’m working on at the moment with a friend who’s a developer to look at reporting through email marketing services, and things like that to see if you can look at best performing email broadcasts and things like that. That may be something that’s on the horizon that could be almost termed a No-Code tool for people to perhaps embed into Notion, embed into Slack, or things like that. There may be something in the future that is more custom coded and may be of interest to No-Coders to use.
Rob: Very cool. Helen, thanks so much for taking some time to join me on the show today. Folks want to keep up with you. It looks like you’re @HelenRyles on Twitter. Anywhere else they should check out?
Helen: I’ve also got a site called FeedbackFridays. Let’s have a chat about the side project. They can go over to feedbackfridays.com.
Rob: Sounds great. Thanks again.
Helen: Thank you. Bye.
Rob: Thank you as always for listening. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Helen. If you did, it would be great if you would tweet her out and thank her for coming on Startups Pod. Hope you have a good week. I will talk to you next Tuesday morning.